Another idol on my road to becoming a tough leathery sexually-charged mature Spanish woman.
This place is so crammed I can barely find a place to stand. I post up wedged in-between an old lady in a floor length fur coat and fuchsia lipstick, bocadillo of ham in one overly-ringed, fleshless hand, and a group of college-aged Spanish suburbanites shouting wordlessly to the tune of “Seven Nation Army” and spilling their dobles on the napkin-littered floor. Pablo dropped his sandwich and is mocked. It’s not quite 4 pm. The walls are lined with colorfully-wrapped ham legs. I suspect at least the uppermost level must be papier-mache (how could this much ham exist in the world?) and the barmen are grizzled and in clean crisp uniforms of starched collars and red and blue vests. Two out of four have a gold medallion of some version of the La Virgen nestled in wiry chest hair.
The food is cheap and decent. The drink is cheaper and less decent. I partake of both.
The bar is a ring four people deep and everyone stands and I sip my beer looking across at punks and abuelas and tourists and middle-aged men in gold and polyester. There are no cliques here; leisure is communal. An intense amount of eye contact is acceptable in Spain. I’m suddenly conscious of how high the waist of my pants is. I’m still too soft for this.
The sandwich is good and the meat is ribboned with fat. Between bites I’m sending lewd messages to a guy a thousand miles away. Electronic love has lost all its taboo in a world where I have two apps on my phone that can get me bottom-shelf sex with a flick of the wrist. These are the kind of messages that shouldn’t see the cold light of day and I’m not entirely sure how the cloud works but he’s got a way about him and you can tell by my dark lipstick that I’m a hedonist. Send.
I had a bad breakup a year ago and broke up with the city of San Francisco too. Came to Spain on an easy visa for a change of scenery and for Hemingway. The scenes changed but I have no stomach for bullfighting.
It’s the 21st century and hence socially acceptable to online date, I tell myself. Now my phone buzzes whenever another single person crosses my path within a certain distance. A moving panopticon of the lonely that radiates out from me 500 feet in all directions (really it uses meters but I still haven’t internalized what that signifies in the practical world). At some point in London whilst hiding from the rain in a vintage shop I couldn’t afford I crossed one such and for months we’ve built a rapport based on blind optimism and the emotional convenience of distance. We’ve never met, but people are willing to cast their nets wide in the digital age of disposable profiles. On the back of three Moscow Mules I recently booked a ticket to see him because one must take chances or else what’s the fucking point. Because these are the times we’re living in.
I have nothing to anchor myself to reality except my faith in proactive choices.
Don’t tell my mom, she’d worry.
And for reasons like this I’m always broke; I have grand visions of fantastic life and vibrant joy and whiskey sex and parties and black poetry. I’ve lived it in small spurts always peppered between long blocks of confused idolatry of inconsistent men and jobs of small responsibility and even smaller consequence (and even smaller paycheck). I get restless: I’ve changed apartments eleven times in ten years. I’ve done all the drugs, the sex and the rock and roll and all I have to show for it is anxiety, feelings, and damaged hearing. I’m too sensitive for one-night stands but I like the concept. I’m too old for drugs; they work too well now. I don’t own a hairbrush; I still fuck up my spin cycle; I’ve had my heart broken twice; none of it has sounded good on paper.
I’m quite a catch.
In my revery an abuela has managed to displace me in my sanctuary of counter space with two sharp elbows akimbo and the unapologetic aloofness of someone who lived through Franco and accordingly merits such compensation. I am powerless in the face of such humanity.
I reach into my pocket knowing I can pay for this meal entirely in coins because I’m a goddamned adult. I count them out on the two square inches of dry bar top remaining to me whilst periodically checking my phone because it stopped doing notifications months ago (strains and pressures from its international lifestyle), which I consider a personal affront. My friend Phil mutters something about all the dick and dinner I could be missing. He’s not wrong, but I’m a boheme and consider my privation to be of a deeper, more profoundly poetic variety.
My dopamine levels are depleted from the weekend so I’m feeling morose in a very Victorian way. The carbonation of the beer is helping with that.
Damn people and their jobs and their private lives and their self-control.
A sudden twinge in my left knee reminds me that I should get it checked out before I go. It’s been various states of swollen for a while now, likely something to do with the knee-level metal posts lining every sidewalk in the city. The bane of the walking texter. But then I remember it’s Sunday and am relieved that there’s no one to call; pronounced fear of second language phone calls.
Idly contemplating how many shades of black to pack.
The only thing keeping me here is a great quality of life and friends in low places. Why would I ever leave. A rolling stone gathers no moss, but if moss is a sense of material accomplishment and progress in meaningful work, then I guess I gotta reevaluate a few things. Take stock of assets and liabilities. I could always focus on the benediction of my fervent joie de vivre. That particular joy of living is worth its weight in good wine and prophylactics. When I’m lucky.
And I’m often lucky.
(Only time will tell).
Christ the reception in here is poor, I can’t be sure if my wanton dispatches are even getting through. I gotta get the hell out of this place and onto higher ground (physically and metaphorically). I hope this barkeep doesn’t mind a fistful of damp coppers, because that’s what I’m leaving him. And a glass smeared with my darkest lipstick.
There’s always chanting coming from somewhere. We have a new king, and flags of the Spanish Republic in Exile add dark marks of color up and down the dunny streets that run past the four large open windows; Ni rey, Ni reina. The same breeze that ripples their dissenting reds, yellows and purples slides along the sticky table, fluttering last night’s rolling papers across the un-mopped floor, where they stick to something horrible that I stepped in this morning. All the glasses are full of cigarette butts and warm gin. We’ve had about eight going away soirees and if I have to break up any more coke parties in the bathroom to brush my teeth, I’m going to renounce my residency.
I haven’t written for days because I’m not a writer, and my thoughts are manic and punctuated by drunken outbursts and ill-begotten lusty messages (mistakes in Spanish grammar take the bite out of both). The apartment has smelled of heat and cigarettes for days, and suitcases in various states of packing represent the disparate plans and departure dates of the three of us who live here: San Francisco, Buenos Aires, and Johannesburg.
At this point my eyes are dull and I need a drink. From one of the small balconies I can see into the closest old-man bar (the only variety worth a damn). Someone’s at the gambling machine and the barman is waltzing alone in the street spilling a glass of the light vermouth for which this place is famous. The sun isn’t going down but my worthless phone is stuck on Icelandic time, and doing the math I determine it is indeed not too early to indulge. It’s been a day that calls for drinking, for godsake.
I leave the spite email I’d been impassively drafting, a response to one I’d gotten hours before bearing ill news about the disintegrating San Francisco life I’d abandoned to its fate nine months ago. Both my best friends are banging my ex and fighting about it STOP Everyone is depressed STOP Bad sex and Jameson are the new religion STOP. I’ll be back there in three weeks and all I can think about are cheese steaks, large coffees, and punching my ex in the dick. I managed to relate this desire to my roommate in French and feel that fact alone moves me up to a level C1 on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.
I grab a general amount of currency and head downstairs.
The legions of day-drinkers draped across public spaces and plazas add an urgency to these last few days. I stop to check my broken phone at the corner where I traditionally catch some rogue wifi. At this hour post-siesta there’s no hope in rousing the other “expats” from their youtube hangovers, and frankly this drink needed to be drunk alone. Furthermore there’s no response to the flurry of weirdly-phrased Spanish come-ons I fired off to a couple of second-stringers late last night, because I have a misplaced need for affection at that hour. That’s certainly for the best, though that boldness will haunt me in the cold light of day when I cross them at the grocery store whilst buying spreadable cheese and diet coke.
I stand at the bar surrounded by old men shouting “venga coño” at various members of the Spanish National soccer team featured on the tv-vcr combo perched in the top corner. This is where I pick up most of my functional vocabulary. Once the bartender comes in from dancing, shirt glistening and thirst unquenched, I order a tall glass of the same vermouth that his mirth advertized, and reflect on the decisions I’ve made.
I have an aversion to success and am debilitatingly self-reflective, it’s true. That needs to be taken into account. But goddamnit, I don’t understand the world anymore. Spain has certainly put that into perspective. Everything around me has disintegrated into mayhem, and that is oddly freeing.
Spain just scored a goal and someone’s abuelo is buying the bar a round of tiny beers.
I’ve learned to accept that seeking catharsis in mutual understanding is a fool’s errand and not the point. We’re emotionally developed enough to render rational thought not only inconvenient but impractical; contradiction is no impediment.
The barman gives me mushrooms as a free tapas, God’s most fucking inglorious food.
Everyone can do what they want, just be direct, that is the only salvation. And that helps free everyone from the burden of frustration.
And then I would have more time to drink vermouth.
I’ll be gone for nearly three months and maybe nothing will change here just as, disappointingly, nothing has changed back home. People will still struggle, and drink in the streets and yell and scream all night because of it. And I’ll make bad decisions and I’ll forgive unforgivable things, but then maybe that’s a clear sign I’ve got too much free time.
Becky and I hiding from the wind in the deceptively cold South.
*There aren’t really a lot of photos that are apropos to this post, so I’ll intersperse my diatribe with paintings I did of my (rock and roll) spirit-guides.
I had a rough weekend. After having a veritable army of 3rd graders practically cough into my mouth all month I got a gnarly stomach flu that laid me out for nearly a week. Now I imagine I know what it’s like to contract dysentery; I had the lower intestine of a pioneer. It was like I was on the goddamned Oregon Trail.
And in my sweat-soaked, bloated, fever-induced delirium I got a bit existential. I began to reflect on my present situation which had slowly become more and more unbearable, and that’s besides the nearly shitting myself to death.
If I have one major fault (I have a litany actually, which is part and parcel to my charm, but if one could be considered the most glaring) it is the fact that I can be passive to a fault, not exercising my agency more than pure altruism and politesse require, and that harshes my mellow something fierce (you can tell I have a liberal arts degree). To put it briefly I can be a wimp when dealing with particularly strong or willful personalities, which by their nature constantly attempt to exert their will over mine (Nietzsche would be unimpressed). Until of course, I reach a certain point and lose it over some triviality and bite someone’s head off for arguing with me over what constitutes one serving of fruit on the food pyramid (anecdotal). I’m a nice guy and I like to keep my shit copacetic, to the point that my will begins to suffer. I can be inconvenienced and handle a fair amount of BS with aplomb, until I become a pariah, banishing myself into some self-imposed bummer city.
Well, anyway that all sounds like some remedial psychological diagnosis from a freshmen who’s just read some Freud, but there, I’ve bared my soul. I look tough, but I can be fragile, you know? I need to take lessons on what it is to be a post-enlightenment liberal individual or I’m going to continue to keep getting increasingly weird and “offbeat” (euphemism) as I get older (the trend has clearly already started).
So, wouldn’t you know it, I saw one of these situations creeping up on me since my time here in Madrid. Forces were acting upon me, shaping my experiences in a negative way, and I was just floating down that noxious river, counting it all part of a “character-building exercise (I have character aplenty by now). But enough is too much; I had made a goal for this year.
Actually I can remember the exact moment: it was summer and I was in the back seat of my friend Ben’s newly-acquired Volvo station wagon, driving north on the 101 towards Marin County, just on the other side of the Golden Gate bridge. There is a tunnel there, whose mouth is outlined in a rainbow, and when we passed through its arch I held my breath and wished for the strength to be able to focus on myself for the next year, to act as an individual unit of energy and potential actively driving on my own trajectory.
The whole point of all of this travel is about 35% frolic and jaunt, and 65% putting myself through the emotional ringer so that I can self-actualize into the tough broad of the 21st century that is my innate self before the anomie of the modern condition threw a wrench into my cogs.
And even if it isn’t easy or natural (and it isn’t because I enjoy confrontation about as much as I enjoy a poke in the eye with a sharp stick) by merely enacting an ethic or behavior one begins to internalize and eventually incorporate it into their natural habits. In other words, keep acting like an alpha female and you shall become one. Now all I need to do is get filthy rich and I’m set.